JAMES CANTY has found his musical home amongst Liverpool’s creative community. Paddy Clarke caught up with the Essex-born singer-songwriter to discuss the different ideas behind debut album Love, released through Obscenic Records.
When I track James Canty down to the FACT foyer, he’s already scribbling in his notebook – “sprawled-out stuff” as he later calls it – and hearing my approach he looks up from reams of self-penned copy for a particularly responsive introduction. On the short walk to the Bombed Out Church garden, which is to be the sun-swathed setting for our interview, the usual introductory platitudes of small-talk are bent almost entirely to his current recording sessions, of which he speaks with winsome enthusiasm. In conversation he strides a strange, inviting line between mazing tangents of tumbling anecdote and a firm, understated sense of purpose to his sprawling yarns: W.H. Auden, Stevie Smith and Bruce Lee all quoted faultlessly with an accompanying impression. If we’re to learn nothing else from our time together, it’s that he’s a man of extraordinary artistic drive, his desire to do nothing but create instantaneously apparent.
“I love writing and I’ve always just put myself in wherever the atmosphere, wherever the right environment is for me to spend all my time writing,” Canty says in a softly-spoken Estuarian lilt. After months of musical wandering it’s in Liverpool that this Essex native has found his creative centre. “I think it’s the only place where I could set up a band, write and record and live without a lot of pressure, with a great artistic community around me,” he expounds. “I was working in the Holiday Inn in Essex for a while,” he remembers, “recording stuff down in Billericay, in my parent’s place, just living at home Wayne’s World style, writing songs, basically, and trying to hone my craft as a songwriter. I moved around like a bit of a nomad really, just touring, solo gigs, playing on my own because I couldn’t afford to have a band any more, and I just wrote songs.”
It was in Joe Wills of Obscenic Records (responsible, among other things, for All We Are’s first release), that the initial roots of Canty’s debut recordings came to fruition. “Joe offered me a place to live where I could also hone my craft up here,” the musician recounts. “We had mutual friends and friends in common that Joe was recording with, and I think he’d liked my music. He actually believed in me; it was such a blessing. He’s given me time and space, and funding too, because he is the label. It’s been DIY, all our mates helping us out, but obviously everything costs money.”
Like all great musical partnerships we can only be glad the two met. Now “best friends, best buddies”, in Canty’s new EP Love the pair have crafted something quite extraordinary: five tracks of considerable conceptual clout, gentle acoustics entwined with dovetailing strings of swelling emotion and pulses of semi-melancholia. Along with a full-length album in production (with the provisional title Something You Choose), all of Canty’s work so far is imbued with an apparent “through-thread”.
“It’s about love but every form, every part of love,” he explains on the concepts of his work. “It’s about trying to make it not a clichéd thing to say love, to bring it to the fore and attack that clichéd side of it. Maybe a tune like Deborah on there is about desire and that kind of love, but it’s mostly about transformation really. In every song there’s more than one voice, or two conflicting voices. So the verse of Putney Bridge is a bit more ugly, stop-starty, and then the chorus is all overblown and romantic.”
“Burning Alive, that tune is about transformation into the alter ego, you changing inside,” he continues. “Deborah’s about conflicting desires, like when you find someone attractive but then you just wanna be friends with them and have a nice time with them, but then you’re also really attracted to them, and then there’s all these other external forces putting loads of pressure on you and it’s really oppressive. Putney Bridge is about more romantic love, longing to make things last long and to appreciate things.”
Along with four accompanying videos, the Love campaign also takes in a live music residency at The Well on Roscoe Street, at which Canty curates a bill of “local artists I really admire, nights where I get to see the bands that I love, play as well and have a good time”. He explains that he “wanted [the artists] to fit together from two opposing sides. I wanna start off with a singer-songwriter, but not a standard singer-songwriter, you know? Like someone who’s in bands and writes songs – get them to do a solo slot: someone like Andy from Outfit, who did it the other day, Jethro Fox, my mate Jacob Berry; these people who write beautiful songs that I know, these great performers performing to audiences just on their own, and then move on to more kind of interesting local bands, like The Aleph, [who also played on the opening night of the residency on 4th June], which was pretty intense to listen to. I’d like it to be a platform, for… just a local band really, but a really good one!”
When Canty describes these residencies as “like is a celebration of a community of artists”, he could arguably be standing at the spearhead of this intriguing creative band, yet, while it’s this sense of inclusion that’s one of the most joyous strings to his bow, there’s also something intensely personal to his work. Each of the EP’s songs are informed by tales of deep significance to the singer; evocative moments of emotional charge whose lasting scars are lent potent voice in their musical articulation, their retelling in our interview injected with quite palpable emotion from the musician.
Of title track Love, for example, Canty remembers: “When I was a kid, I went to the woods with this boy and we were just building a den in the woods… there was just this one guy left on his own and we could hear someone moaning. He was lying under this tree and he had blood all over his face; the shit kicked out of him… we walked him home. That had an effect on me when I was a kid. There’s this poem that starts ‘In a valley of this restless mind’, a medieval lyric poem. This guy’s wandering through the valley of his own mind and he comes across this man dying under a tree, and it’s a king, dressed up really richly, and the king says that ‘for love he’s dying’.”
It calls to conversation a rich vein of non-musical influences that have informed Canty’s work, and he’s as ebullient on his favourite poets and philosophers as he is bands and artists. “It’s such a cliché, but I don’t care because it’s probably just true, but W.H. Auden,” he replies when I enquire as to his favourite. “I think he’ll be remembered forever. His poetry’s just beautiful. I’ve got a voice recording of him reading his own work and I just love hearing him saying his own poems.” It’s a recording he duly plays me at length, the singer hunched over his phone and my recorder with an unguarded grin as the gravelly tones of Auden reading Homage To Clio float into the afternoon.
As for music, meanwhile, it was an immersion in the 60s folk revival after a teenage grasp of the guitar that seems a catalyst, and from there a fascination of sorts with the role of singer-songwriter. “All you want is a voice. Something you feel represented by, and maybe something to believe in as well, but I realised that my actual voice, my roots, are just in pop music,” he explains. “All those singer-songwriters, all those folk songs, they were songwriters writing them, just acoustic songwriters, and it carries on to Cat Stevens, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen. Pop music to me is folk music now, people singing to karaoke machines where they used to sing to someone playing acoustic guitar. It’s the same thing: they choose what song they want to sing, and then they sing it, really drunk and happy, and it’s great. That’s the music of the people today.”
“I fell in love with songwriters; I always just wanted to be a songwriter,” he continues, explaining that it was explorations towards “Dylan and more rootsy, folky music” that inspired him to take up the banjo, which he learnt, incidentally, from Tom Paley of 60s folk legends New Lost City Ramblers, a friend of Canty’s similarly exalted guitar teacher Duck Baker. “I still play the banjo, and it still comes from that longing for the truth and that longing for the honesty of folk music. The tradition, that’s what you’re looking for, something to belong to in terms of the tradition. But songwriting is a tradition, it’s something that’s been around for a long time, and that’s all the identity you need.”
It’s been an absorbing conversation, but the thing really worth noting about James Canty is that, for all his extolling of the virtues of Auden, and elsewhere other poets like Stevie Smith and Robert Frost, of his enthusiasm for high concepts and Enlightenment philosophy, he remains entirely personable and unpretentious, discussions of the value of the artistic alter ego undercut with a self-effacing affectation of a mock-pompous voice. As we conclude our interview, I ask him whether he writes poetry of his own. With his finest cockney ragamuffin impression and grin he replies: “Leave that to the poets, mate, I’m just a humble songwriter.”
Love is out now on Obscenic Records.